At some point in your career, you’re likely to come across colleagues who behave so badly they cause real harm to your organisation. These “toxic” employees are a scourge of the workplace, diminishing the productivity and performance of those around them. They can be so awful that co-workers and customers leave the organisation to avoid working with them. And their behaviour can even be infectious.
So is it possible that their toxicity has rubbed off on you? Are you, unwittingly, displaying toxic behaviour at work? And if you are part of the problem, what can you do to detoxify and reduce the risk of it happening in the first place?
Well, to find out how you can assess and improve your conduct in the office, we spoke to Benjamin Voyer, a professor of behavioural science in ESCP’s Department of Entrepreneurship.
Toxic employees can be perfectionists who want to do well, but they are also problem-finders rather than problem-solvers.Prof. Ben Voyer
Recognise and acknowledge your toxicity
Voyer tells us the first step is to recognise and acknowledge one’s toxicity. Then, try to understand the various ways in which it manifests. In doing that, there are signs to look out for that suggest you’re becoming a toxic employee. Spotting them means you can begin to improve your behaviour before it’s too late — when you’re branded toxic at work.
First off, look out for binary thinking, Voyer warns — the tendency to see things in terms of absolutes, such as good versus bad, or right versus wrong. “If you are a toxic employee, you will think the world is black or white, you’re a winner or a loser, you’re creative or uninspired,” he says.
And this dichotomisation is bad for everyone around you because it breeds negativity, our expert explains. “Toxic employees can be perfectionists who want to do well, but they are also problem-finders rather than problem-solvers. They would criticise everything — even a generous end-of-year bonus, by saying the company ‘could have done more’. And they display jealousy and cannot rejoice if a colleague gets a promotion, even if they were not competing with them.”
Power struggles often lead to toxic behaviour, and should therefore be avoided. “Toxic employees may use power strategies that generate tensions, such as spreading false rumours, or using ingratiation,” Voyer says, pointing to a psychological technique to influence another person by becoming more likeable to them.
Keep an eye on how you behave outside work
Although these behaviours show up at work, they often stem from our personal lives, so you need to keep an eye on how you treat people outside work, too. “If you think in terms of ‘all or nothing’, or have a quarrelsome personality, chances are that you bring these ways of thinking and personality traits into the workplace,” Voyer says.
But you can also “catch” toxicity from other colleagues, our expert reminds us. “We tend to forget that stress, just like germs, is contagious. Being surrounded by people that are toxic is not advisable. After months or years of exposure to a toxic mindset, you may develop such personality traits yourself.”
And most of us are not even aware of the creeping toxicity, he says, underscoring the need to be more self-aware. “In fact, some companies see stress as a good thing, particularly in highly pressured work environments,” Voyer says. “But the stress gets passed around and it diminishes the performance of the team. If you join the wrong culture, you may turn into a toxic person, and there is a big risk that drags down other people.”
We tend to forget that stress, just like germs, is contagious. Being surrounded by people that are toxic is not advisable.
Develop better stress management skills
So developing better stress-management skills — such as mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing and time management — can also help to stop any toxic behaviour from taking root. And there are many other methods that our expert recommends.
For example, he recommends enlisting someone you trust, a friend or colleague, who can give you an honest assessment of how you behave, holding up a mirror to your conduct. “The main difficulty for people is to realise, first of all, that they are not always that nice, and to accept it. If you recognise you have issues that affect you and your team, it’s easier to change,” he says.
“And then, the work needs to start to ensure you think and act differently around other people. The best way is to use cognitive behavioural therapy,” Voyer says. This is a type of talking therapy that focuses on how your thoughts and attitudes affect your feelings and actions.
“Once you change how you think, then your behaviour will eventually change,” Voyer continues. “It’s about catching your inner thoughts that are toxic and turning them around. For example, if you receive feedback at work and always look at the negative first, then next time focus on the positives.”
Lastly, our expert says organisations can take steps to prevent this behaviour from manifesting in the first place. “The key is to raise awareness of toxic culture. It’s very similar to bullying. If there is no institutional drive to make people aware of bullying, then it will continue. In a similar vein, you’ve got to care for each other in the workplace and have mental health protection measures in place to thwart toxicity before it grows and festers.”
But ultimately, it comes down to personal responsibility.
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